Roxane Butterfly at Joe’s Pub

Most people tap with their feet. Roxane Butterfly began her July 31 performance at Joe’s Pub with a little soft shoe of the hand. It paved the way for the unconventional fare to come: Her confessional, spoken word musings; her call and response, improvised, rhythmic exchanges with the pianist Frederique Trunk and the upright electric bassist Hill Greene; her impromptu finale in which three tap friends hoofed it with the bell bottom wearing lady. Overall, the proceedings had the air of a beatnik revival.

Through Butterfly’s performance format was anything but tight and her costume was anything but chic, this dancer is no flake with her taps. Her mentor Jimmy Slyde, the bebop tap master, gave her his seal of approval, when she moved to New York from France to immerse herself in America’s dance patois. After achieving some well-deserved and hard-worn name recognition in the city’s fiercely competitive dance scene, Butterfly told us that she began to feel the weight of life on and off stage: “I don’t know how I managed,” she said, “to remain in New York for 20 years and remain somewhat romantic.” New York’s tap scene, with its emphasis on virtuoso speed, can be crushing. So Butterfly moved on. Today she calls Barcelona her home, with the understanding that she still spends a good portion of the year on the road.

For her New York homecoming, Butterfly’s one nightstand at Joe’s Pub started as a reflective affair. Not only did she explain to the audience why she left Manhattan, she gave us a taste of her rocky love life. Channeling the voice of what appeared to be her lover, she said, “I hate falling in love with you white bitch. I hate mixing my blood with yours.” Wow. Talk about a theatrical bombshell. I instantly felt like a voyeur. But just as quickly as Butterfly flitted into this heavy emotional territory, she slid out, launching into a solo that was the best of the evening: growing in rhythmic complexity, wholly improvised, and one that was prepossessing without being a grand stander.

Butterfly isn’t one of those performers who agonizes about every little choice she makes. Some times I wish she would. Her poetry—“when morning creeps into night, aching with shame you hear the blame”—leaves a lot to be desired. But her generosity of spirit is infectious. When she invited three of her former tap performer colleagues on stage, she didn’t get annoyed when one of them, the virtuoso tapper Tamango, began hogging the tiny space with his hard-hitting sounds. She also didn’t seem to mind that the evening was going in a completely different direction—away from a feminist act interspersed by nuanced interchanges with her musicians—and toward a reunion of “La Cave,” the underground tap dance scene from the 1990s.

Butterfly’s hodgepodge format worked fine at Joe’s Pub. The place has history, and so does Butterfly. At the end of the evening, she announced that the baby crying at the show’s beginning was hers. In the future I expect to see baby Butterfly on stage with momma. My only hope is that the two will focus more on tapping than on letting their lips fly.

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